The Fiat Nuova 500 | Part Three

The New Fiat 500

Fiat 500

The 110 Prototype For The Nuova 500

To understand ‘how’ and why the Nuova 500 was conceived, we have to think not of a mere substitute for the old Topolino (509,650 units between 1936-1955), or of a model that was able to compete with a scooter, in terms of costs and efficiency.

Giacosa wrote an interesting description of the ‘preparatory’ stage before the arrival of the car. The most important Italian automotive engineer in the second half of the 20th century, and the true father of the Nuova 500, is the best witness to these events. “While the 600 was still at the experimental stage,” he said, “I had put people back to work on a minimalist car, even smaller and more economical. The Italians wanted cars, and they were willing to make do with even less space, provided it was on four wheels. No matter how small, a car would still be more comfortable than a scooter, particularly in winter and in the rain. I had people sketch models of unconventional small cars that had to compete with the Vespa in particular.”

As far back as 1939, Fiat had already done some work on ‘minimalist’ cars that had remained at the experimental stage because of the war, which is what happened to the first type 100 with front-wheel drive and a 500 cc transverse engine, designed in 1947, which was never built.

During the war, a prototype, known as the Gregoire, appeared in France, attracting a great deal of attention, but again, nothing came of it. But at Mirafiori, Fiat engineers knew that in Germany they were designing small cars like the BMW Isetta, which Giacosa called “half-way between a car and a motorcycle”, and attempts were being made to restart manufacture of the people’s car, the Volkswagen, in viable numbers. The Deutsche Fiat company had a sort of technological antenna in Germany through its headquarters in Heilbronn and its assembly plant in Weinsberg. A technician called Hans Peter Bauhof worked there, whom Dante Giacosa defined as a man with a “fervid imagination, animated by a restless spirit of initiative”, adding, in what resembled a note to the personnel department, that he was “shy and modest, but ingenious, tenacious and hard-working”.

In 1953, the technician from Heilbronn submitted his proposal (which appears somewhat rustic from the pictures that still remain) for a small car with a single cylinder, 2-stroke engine derived from a motorcycle which, in Giacosa’s words, was “unsuitable for the car that Fiat wanted to build”. But Bauhof’s ideas for the construction of the bodywork were appreciated in Turin. Bauhof also sent a prototype to Turin, which Giacosa found “interesting for its simplicity”, but the rest of the company considered it too superficial and insufficient as a car.

When Bauhof’s proposal to use a motorcycle engine had been discarded, Giacosa continued to work on the 500 project. In 1954 he decided “that the engine had to be a 4-stroke, with two cylinders in line, which is the simplest, most economical engine, and that it should be air-cooled. It may be positioned transversely, it is simple and has a high mechanical efficiency”. He entrusted the actual design to the engineer Giovanni Torrazza, “the only graduate working for me who knew how to draw”, and designed the bodywork himself, because “I was so worried about giving the car an attractive shape, a structure that was as light as possible but sturdy, and simple but economical to build”. Giacosa prepared two plaster models, one very similar to the 600 and the other entirely new. “I tried to make the sheet metal surface as small as possible”, he wrote in his book, “in order to limit the weight and the cost, much as I had done for the 600”.

His description of the presentation of the two 500 mock-ups is involuntarily comic because, as Giacosa recalled, “when I presented the two mock-ups to the Professor (Vittorio Valletta, Fiat Chairman at the time) and to the small Executive Committee, they were silent and perplexed, although they gradually relaxed when they understood the various reasons for things. And because they had to take a decision, they decided to support me, and approved the new version”.

continues... | Part Four
Published 21 March 2007 Melanie Carter

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